From the airy natural light of the Oldmasters Museum, it was along, down, around, down some more, turn some corners, past some more art, ricochet off the gates of the Chagall exhibition, more stairs. Sort of how the Gründerzeit of the Zeughaus unfolds into the 21st century of I. M. Pei’s Deutsches Historisches Museum extension. Or something like Daniel Liebeskind’s Jüdisches Museum Berlin. Lots of angles. Kinda dim also. Dim with blobs of light. Or occasionally shards of natural light, in whose line delicate paintings were placed rendering them unviewable from the usual position art is viewed from.
Yes, I’m on my regular hate paragraph about shithouse lighting in museums. I actually noticed it when Medieval POC reblogged one of the works from Oldmasters Museum and I was horrified at how shoddy it looked, especially as I’d spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to unshoddify it. The orb of blue glare was strong in the upper parts of too many works in Brussels. But Henri Evenepoel’s De annkondiging van het negerfest te Blida which suffered from the ridiculous, “Let’s place a work that’s generally quite muted and dark, with figures who have dark skin, where all the details are in variations of dark tones, let’s place this work, covered with a pane of glass, in the one place on the entire floor where direct, natural exterior light will bounce off it and into the viewer’s eyes.” Did no one stop to think, “Nah, crap idea”? Obviously not. I photographed it from around a 45º angle to the left, underexposed it hugely, and photoshopped the crap out of it.
Ooievaars by Louis Dubois was also in a dim, obscure location. I guess it looked something like this. It was one of my favourites, brooding, eerie, entirely untrustworthy. I don’t think anyone meeting a gang of fowl like that would come out the other side of the swamp intact.
There were a lot—in fact probably one of the two main themes in the museum—of paintings of poverty, poor migrant workers, farmers, exhausted labourers at work or stumbling to and from the factories, single women working alone in ill-lit rooms. Léon Frederic’s triptych De krijtverkopers was one of the strongest, muted colours, lack of contrast, general hopelessness, the expression of the girl in the centre of the middle panel looking out directly at the viewer is incalculably grim.
The other main theme: women alone in similar situations, or in ateliers, or straight portraits. Maybe it was where my attention went. James Ensor’s Een coloriste, Portret van Marguerite Khnopff by Fernand Knopff, Henri Fantin-Latour’s De tekenles in het atelier. If anything marked fin-de-siècle art besides mysticism and romanticism, it’s this acutely political work.
Speaking of mysticism, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ De bruidsstoet van Psyche struck me as the endgame of whiteness in European art. Go back through the museum and there’s works of orientalism in various forms; go back through the history of art and people who aren’t excruciatingly white are regular occurrences. This Pre-Raphaelite piece though pushes skin colour to a particular, uniform monotony (something I do see in the movement’s inspiration, Italian Quattrocento). They’re all exactly the same light tone, all also besides their hair colour have identical faces. I wanted to include it here because it spoke to me so clearly of this complete erasure, and the European fantasy of the pure white woman.
Just after, an utter treat for me: a whole corridor devoted to opera in Brussels, starting with and dominated by Wagner and Parsifal. The staging from Act II, Klingsor’s enchanted castle where the Flowermaidens attempt to seduce Parsifal, where Kundry emerges to face him. This scenography for the Belgian Première, all hot reds, oranges, yellows, looks completely modern, also for the empty blackness of the door, almost a signifier of Amfortas’ wound. Next to this, a commemorative book with Wagner’s profile on the frontispiece. Then the restaurant menu, Parsifal mounted on a horse, Klingsor’s cloud-wrapped castle hanging in the distance. And two large bronze coins, one with the Holy Grail, the other with the dancing Flowermaidens. On the wall behind all this, posters for the premiere, and for other Wagner operas staged in La Monnaie De Munt.
Three other paintings: Théo Van Rysselberghe’s Arabische fantasia. Dumb name for awesome painting. The right half mostly empty sand, a man with a long rifle riding a chestnut horse with white facial blaze. He’s in orange robes and light yellow turban, pulling the horse in, his rifle smoking, mouth open, eyes looking left and down. Behind him a mounted quintet in white all brandishing similar rifles. The thin border on the right is populated with a standing crowd of which two boys stand out. The triangle on the left is full with riders watching the scene, on horses with vermillion harnesses. One in white leans back, his bare arm supporting his weight on his horse’s grey back. Behind him, another rider in grey-blue robes looks out into the viewer’s eyes. Behind all, a white walled city blocks the horizon in a low line, above that, intense blue sky. The painting is from the artist’s second trip to Morocco in 1883/4. All the riders and audience are North African, arabic, muslim.
Then two by Henri Evenepoel, De annkondiging van het negerfest te Blida (the horribly lit one), and next to it, Sinaasappelmarkt te Blida, both from the artist’s time in Algeria in 1898.They’re substantially different to Arabische fantasia, brushwork less detailed, blocks of moving colour Fauvist rather than realism and light of Rysselberghe. Thematically also they’re more intimate, smaller, a corner in a market alley, the market itself, but mostly obscured by the figures in the foreground.
Completely opposite this these three works are three by Guillaume Vogels, all dour, grey, winter Belgium realism, skeletal, leafless trees, snow, light only through clouds and low on the horizon, everything a formless, inexact mash. I loved these also, as unique as the harsh light and colour of North Africa.
Lastly, Xavier Mellery’s La danse. I’m not sure what to make of it, it’s kinda ugly, the solid gold background, the female dancers somewhere between dark-skinned and in shadow, but not quite either, moving and jumping yet not quite either, for such a scene of movement it’s annoyingly concrete and unmoving.
And 293 images later (plus another score with Hans and in the theatre) that’s the end of four museums on a weekend in Brussels.
It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.
Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:
The non-fiction, serious stuff:
Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.
Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.
Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.
Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.
The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.
Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.
I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.
Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.
Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.
Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.
I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.
The two big ones then, and colossal they are.
One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.
I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.
An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.
There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.
This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.
Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
Last time I was performing in Parsifal, Laurence Dreyfus’ Wagner and the Erotic Impulse had just been published and was my and Dasniya’s reading during the rehearsals and performance. This time around in Bologna, I’d hoped to bring along William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, part of Oxford University Press’ series Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure, and Interpretation. I waited, hoping it would arrive before our flight. It didn’t. So it was one of the stack of books I collected on my return (and for my profligacy have now banned myself from St George’s until at least April 2nd). I began reading it while ploughing through Dayal Patterson’s Black Metal, and got seriously stuck into it earlier in the week.
Much work (of which I also have to write) has kept me from blog, and I’m not going to write a massive exegesis on this, nonetheless, it’s a seriously well-written and researched work (aside from saying on p91 that the Flower Maidens are singing “Komm! holder Knabe!” in Act 1; that’d be Act 2, just before we begin to seriously plot our Act 3 pizza), which I would appreciate more if I remembered how to read music, knew my intervals, and all the rest.
Kinderman writes at length on Kundry, partly because Wagner himself did, and partly because as much as the work follows Parsifal, it also follows her. He writes that certain parts of her character and what happen to her can be seen as a crypto-anti-semiticism, or shaping her as either Jewish herself or a stand-in for Jewishness as it was represented in the late-19th century. I’d planned to write something on Kundry during Parsifal; it’s not going to happen, but perhaps to say, I was following a reading trail across various blogs, and came to Black Knights, Green Knights, Knights of Color All A-Round: Race and the Round Table, which is well-worth reading, not the least for a summary of how Mediaeval European and Arthurian knights were far from the white, Aryan nationalism they were pressed into service for by the time of Wagner.
This morning I was reading once more about Stephen Hawking’s misinterpreted statement on the existence of black holes, which led to a blog I’d not read before. My great loss. I’ve since spent several hours catching up, and Backreaction is definitely my new favourite blog for all things physics, astro~, quantum~ or otherwise. And philosophy!
The higher the density, the slower the speed of light. At half the critical density, the speed of light reaches zero – this means points become causally disconnected. But things become even more interesting when the density becomes larger than half the critical density and increases towards the critical density. In this range the speed of light becomes an imaginary number and its square becomes negative. This means that time stops existing and turns into space. Physicists say space-time becomes Euclidean.
“… time stops existing and turns into space.”
Parsifal: Ich schreite kaum, – doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit.
I barely step, – yet believe myself come far.
Gurnemanz: Du siehst, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.
You see, my son, time here becomes space.
A matinee is a strange performance to finish a season on.
I thought to take some photos of the theatre, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, where we’ve been the last month; particularly the piazza where the theatre is placed on the north-west-ish side. Saturday, following the wet greyness of Friday was oppositely calm, warm, and a vault of blue. The theatre looked spectacular.
There was another photo I wanted. The first time taking the elevator to the Salle Ballo, thinking it was high up and therefore on the top floor, I ended up in the roof space above the grid, with a small window looking out across the city, through the towers to Santuario della Madonna di San Luca, a view scarcely bettered by any other high point in the city, and one only for those fortunate enough to be lost in the theatre.
We warmed up for the last time, Bonnie, Dasniya, Pericles, and I, pinning on wigs, slathering white body paint, tying up ropes, and then, once again, it was finished.
One final evening in that beautiful city, and today fleeing across the directions of the compass: Bonnie southwards, Pericles east, and Dasniya and I splitting the difference between North, her to Zürich and me to Berlin.
There was no applause after Act 1, so we didn’t have our aural cue over the backstage speakers to begin our final preparations. At the end of Act 2, the only sound was the rumble and grind of machinery and single voices of the tech crew. No applause. It was Valentina, the stage manager who said it was because the conductor Roberto Abbado, had asked there be no applause until the end in respect of his uncle, the conductor Claudio Abbado, who died the previous day.
This morning I read his obituary in Deutsche Welle. He is quoted, “Many people learn how to talk, but they don’t learn how to listen. Listening to one another is an important thing in life. And music tells us how to do that.” and “Theaters, libraries, museums and movie theaters are like little aqueducts,” and “Culture overcomes social inequities. Culture frees us from poverty.”
While the third Act played, we sat in our dressing room Tersicorre, the four of us eating pizza and drinking wine. Dasniya read a message from Anna (the Mad Anna) describing the first time she met Claudio. At the end of Act 3, there was applause.
The day after opening Parsifal, and I couldn’t even persuade myself to sleep in, so … To the Museums!
Unlike Berlin, where I live and know a reasonable amount about the city, Bologna is entirely new to me (ok, besides spaghetti bolognese). Indeed, this is my first time in Italy. I suppose this means I experience a museum in this city more as it is intended: an educational summary of a specific topic. Dasniya and I decided to go to the Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna, but it seemed it would close not long after we got there. Across from Piazza del Francia we passed the Palazzo Pepoli, containing the Museo della Storia di Bologna, one of several museums that are part of Genus Bologniae. Open until 7pm and barely 2pm, we decided it would be a perfect choice for an hour or two. It was nearly closing by the time we left. I think the sheer number of photos I took and the number that ended up here illustrate what a fine time both Dasniya and I had.
This is the museum of the history of Bologna, and it goes back to the Etruscans, around 700BCE, when it was known as Felsina. It was also the city of Cassini, the Cassini, a satellite bearing his name orbiting now around Mars, who was a remarkable astronomer at a time of revolution in the field. This, and the art of building time-pieces (along with mercantile families and their ventures, and the famous university) is what the museum is built around. The Palazzo Pepoli of the family Pepoli dates back around 800 years, and while the museum doesn’t cover them as much as I’d have liked, it did devote the last exhibit in the formal dining hall to a series of 11 busts made in the 17th century of generations of women from the family, each of them spectacular in their own right.
I took an audio guide again, after my very good experience with one at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum a couple of weeks ago. It was a good decision, as all the exhibits are in Italian, though they also have information sheets in several languages in every room; the audio guide really adds a fantastic amount. It’s tempting to go through each room as a recollection here, but I think the photos capture something of that, and it’s sufficient to say I understand the city I’m working in far better than I did a few hours ago and have fallen into something of a love affair with the place, and Italy.
So, some flat notes amidst what is one of the most splendid museums set in one of the most beautiful city palaces I’ve ever been in. Despite the Pepoli women mentioned above, it’s unavoidable the museum gives a wide berth to the role of women in the history of the city. Even in the contemporary section, where 48 Bolognese are interviewed, only 5 of them are women; barely clearing 10%. Otherwise, it’s a sausage-fest, which is a pity, as the Pepoli women prove, the city has a history at least as long their family in which women play a central role.
The other, which coming from Berlin could never have been gotten away with in that city, was the exhibit (about a fifth of one of the 35 rooms) covering the Second World War. Or rather, “Liberata. Risorgere! Ai vittoriosi” “Liberation. Rise again! For the victorious”. No mention of Italian collaboration, fascism, Jews sent to concentration camps, just, “April 1945! Yay! … Oh, and the city was heavily bombed … Sad city is sad …” In Germany a museum would probably end up in prison for historical revisionism.
Besides that, this is a brilliant museum, varied and stimulating, beautifully laid out, so much attention to detail and the creative display of exhibits (a red Ducati next to a Roman chariot in the exhibit on the Roman Via Emilia trunk road!). I feel delightfully spoilt, and a little worried; if all museums here are so good going back to Berlin is going to be a torment.
One hundred years ago, Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal was first performed in Italy at Teatro Comunale di Bologna, and on Tuesday, January 14th, we celebrate this in the prémiere of Roméo Castellucci’s production that was first staged at La Monnaie | De Muntin Brussels in 2011.
14 Gennaio 2014 – 25 Gennaio 2014 Parsifal – Richard Wagner
Dramma sacro in tre atti
Libretto di Richard Wagner
Nel centenario della prima rappresentazione Italiana, a Bologna il primo gennaio 1914
14 gennaio 2014 – 19:00 Turno Prima
16 gennaio 2014 – 19:00 Turno A
18 gennaio 2014 – 15:30 Turno Domenica
21 gennaio 2014 – 19:00 Turno B
23 gennaio 2014 – 19:00 Turno C
25 gennaio 2014 – 15:30 Turno Pomeriggio
Amfortas Detlef Roth
Titurel Arutjun Kotchinian
Gurnemanz Gábor Bretz
Parsifal Andrew Richards
Klingsor Lucio Gallo
Kundry Anna Larsson
Primo Cavaliere del Graal Saverio Bambi
Secondo Cavaliere del Graal Alexey Yakimov
Primo scudiero Paola Francesca Natale
Secondo scudiero Alena Sautier
Terzo scudiero Filippo Pina Castiglioni
Quarto scudiero Paolo Antognetti
Fanciulle fiore – gruppo I
Fanciulle fiore – gruppo II
Diletta Rizzo Marin
Maria Rosaria Lopalco
Voce dall’alto Anna Larsson
Tamara Bacci (solista)
Roberto De Rosa
Martina La Ragione
Francesca Cerati (riserva)
Angela Russo (riserva)
Ferewoyni Berhe Argaw
Direttore Roberto Abbado
Regia, scene, costumi e luci Romeo Castellucci
Regista collaboratore Silvia Costa
Movimenti coreografici Cindy Van Acker
Drammaturgia Piersandra Di Matteo
Ballerina solista Tamara Bacci (Gref)
Assistente alle luci Daniele Naldi
Video 3D Apparati Effimeri
Maestro del Coro Andrea Faidutti
Maestro del Coro Voci Bianche Alhambra Superchi
Orchestra, Coro e Tecnici del Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Coro di Voci Bianche del Teatro Comunale di Bologna